iOS 5, day three: Photo Stream is nice, but won't quite do what I want

If you like fine-grained control over your photo sharing, get ready for frustration

One of the most highly anticipated aspects of iOS 5 and iCloud is Photo Stream, which silently syncs up the photos on your iOS devices with a photo store on your computer. (I'm using a Mac for this, but you can do it with a Windows computer too.) If you're like me, around the time you got an iPhone was the time you stopped using a standalone camera to capture moments you're interested in. It's great to have a decent camera on your person at all times (photographers have an adage: "The best camera is the one that's with you"), but I never seem to sync my pictures up with iPhoto, leaving my bank of iPhoto memories to end abruptly in early 2009. Photo Stream promises to fix this, and does -- but, once again, there are some quirks to work out.

Oh, you didn't think it'd be free, did you?

Photo Stream is a part of iCloud, so you'll need to set up your iCloud account both on your iOS device (you'll be prompted to do this early on) and on your computer, which you can do on the spiffy new iCloud control panel. Once you've given your Apple ID and password, the control panel will chug through your various apps and "prepare" them for iCloud. But when it gets to Photo Stream, you might be in for a little unpleasant surprise.



While I'm obsessive about keeping my OS up to date, I don't play with the iLife apps enough to pay to upgrade them. And my version of iPhoto was, I thought, relatively up to date -- it was the latest and greatest when I bought my laptop, less than 18 months ago. But it's not ready for iCloud, and getting it ready cost money. Fortunately (?), Apple has developed a whole infrastructure for making that extremely easy; I was able to upgrade for $15 via the Mac App Store without incident (unless you count me grumbling about the $15 spent as an "incident.")

So once all my various chunks of technology were up to snuff, I started actually using Photo Stream. Turns out it's dead simple -- but like a lot of dead simple things, it can be a bit frustrating if you like to exercise fine-grained control.

Act fast, or you're sharing

The first step was easy: I stepped outside and took a picture of Pittsburgh's scenic Point State Park. Then I walked back inside within range of Wi-Fi. Looking at my Photos app, I noticed there was now a new album, called Photo Stream. All the new photos you take are moved here silently and automatically (though not instantly, as I'll discuss in more detail momentarily). And yes, I said "new photos," which should come as a relief to anyone who was worried that iOS 5 would start sharing the hundreds of photos they already have on their device.



Photo Stream is what gets shared to any iOS 5 enabled device that you've registered to iCloud with your Apple ID. And here's the biggest annoyance about it if you're a control freak like me: You can't edit it. You can purge it, by going to, entering your Apple ID, clicking on your name at the top right of the page, clicking "Advanced," and then choosing "Reset Photo Stream" (currently the only advanced option available). This will clear out the Photo Stream folder on all your devices, but not erase the pictures themselves.

I'm sure that everyone reading this can now think of multiple ways this could be annoying. Here's one that's been on my mind while I writing this: if you're taking a bunch of screenshots on your phone because you're writing a blog post about iOS 5, you're going to end up with a bunch of screenshots in your Photo Stream. Another problem I foresee that might be encountered by ordinary humans: when I'm out shopping with my wife and I catch her lingering over something without buying it, I take a surreptitious photo of it with my phone so that I can add it to my list of potential birthday or Hanukkah gifts. Since we share an Apple ID, that move will get a lot less slick when those photos start popping up in her phone's Photo Stream.

There is a solution to the latter scenario. Pictures don't get moved into your Photo Stream until your phone is connected to Wi-Fi. So, I could just email those gift pictures to myself and then delete them from my phone before returning to my warm blanket of wireless connectivity. In fact, even if you are in Wi-Fi range, you still have a minute or so delete awkward/bad/compromising photos before they start beaming out to everyone you share an Apple ID with.

iPhoto is gentler

At any rate, for better or for worse, once I walked back inside the Wi-Fi bubble, my lovely picture of Pittsburgh's grey skies -- as well as a random iPhone screenshot -- were in my Photo Stream. I fired up my newly upgraded iPhoto, and, once I clicked "Photo Stream" in the left-hand menu bar, there they were.


It really is a nice park

See those little radiating semicircles at the bottom left? That's how you know you're looking at images in the Photo Stream -- I guess they're meant to represent, like, Wi-Fi or something. And here's another something that struck me as counterintuitive. You can't do any of the things to these photos that you're used to doing with images in iPhoto -- can't share them, can't edit them, can't even drag them to a folder. And, as noted, you certainly can't delete them. So, what's the point, exactly?

But fear not! While you were busy looking in wonder at that Photo Stream folder, the images have also been silently stored in your Photos library. Dip into that and you'll see the same images, without the little Wi-Fi logo, which you can edit and sort to your heart's content.


Does iPhoto have a "blue skies" filter I can use?

This is all a little unintuitive. If you try to edit or move any image in your Photo Stream, you get a pop-up window inviting you to do whatever you're trying to do to the version of the image in your Photo Library instead. It makes sense when you think about it -- or at least it makes sense when I think about it -- but I'm not sure how hard it will be for people to get their head around how it works if they don't think about cloud storage interfaces for a living.

iPhoto can also add images to your Photo Stream, but you have more fine-grained control than you do on the iPhone. While iPhoto by default will upload images you import automatically, you can set your preferences so that it holds off from doing so. (You can stop it from automatically adding the photos to your library too.)


Why only the Mac?

With this preference set, you can actively choose to add an imported image to Photo Stream by choosing "Share" from iPhoto's bottom menu bar (it's there among options to send to Flickr, Facebook, or your MobileMe Gallery, which, isn't that going away?). If there were one way that I could change how Photo Stream works, it would be to have the same option on the iPhone -- I'd love it if pictures I took could be opted into iPhoto rather than slurped up automatically. I'd even like to manually add some of my older photos to the stream (this doesn't seem to be one of the sharing options available). Still, I have to say that I'm pretty enthusiastic about this feature, if only because it will hopefully encourage me to get my pictures off of my phone and maybe even -- gasp! -- onto physical prints. (I know, I'm a luddite at heart.)

One final note: while I was writing this post, the Photo Stream in iPhoto on my Mac seems to have been gummed up: It hasn't downloaded new photos I took, and there's a note at the top right of the screen that says "Uploading 3 photos" that isn't going away. Not sure if this is a problem on my end or if Apple's iCloud servers are still feeling a few birthing pangs. Anyone else who has encountered similar problems, feel free to chime in.

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